On The Conditional Acceptance Of LGBTQ Scholars In Sociology

A couple of weeks ago, I participated on a panel at the American Sociological Association annual meeting titled, “Navigating Queer Identities in the Department and Classroom.”  I decided to reflect on what I feel is the “conditional acceptance” of LGBTQ scholars in sociology.  I have provided my notes from that panel below.

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I have faced surprisingly little homophobic discrimination in my academic career. There have been occasional stings of homophobic microaggressions: “you’re gay, do you like my shoes?”; “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS”; “did you want life insurance for your wife?”; “we’re so gay-friendly – there are lots of theatres and museums nearby.” But, I am not aware of instances of outright discrimination, harassment, or exclusion.

I do not take from my experiences the assumption that I am one of the lucky few, and certainty not the conclusion that homophobia is a thing of the past (even in academia). Rather, I am keenly aware of the choices – or, rather, compromises – that I have made that have shielded me from more severe discrimination and marginalization in academia. To some degree, at least compared to even a few years ago, lesbian, gay, and bisexual have achieved acceptance in sociology. The American Sociological Association’s (ASA) advocacy for marriage equality is nothing short of historical. (The field lags in recognizing, addressing, and eliminating transphobia.)

As a queer cisgender man, I have certainly felt welcome, if not accepted, in sociology. But, this acceptance has felt anything but unconditional. Throughout my career, I have felt conditionally accepted as an out queer man in sociology. I borrow this term – conditionally accepted – from the experience of coming out to my parents around age 18. In the years that followed, their initial denial and disappointment gave way to acceptance because I was doing well in school. They admitted that it became easier to accept my sexuality because I was successful. Translation: my parents would have continued to struggle if I were HIV-positive, suffering from drug addition, or another casualty of suicide or hate crimes.

“I Don’t Mind Gay People”

In my academic career, I have faced two manifestations of this conditional acceptance as a queer scholar studying queer communities. The first is akin to the supposedly welcoming phrase, “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t come up on me.” You can be queer in sociology – just do not demand the majority to change. Do not ask sociology to start recognizing sexualities and trans studies as legitimate areas of study.

Even before I even began my PhD program, I was discouraged from pursuing gender studies training. My dreams of a joint PhD in sociology and gender studies were quickly dismissed with the warning that I would never get a job. But, I was also discouraged from pursuing a graduate minor in gender studies; instead, my minor became research methods (i.e., statistics). By the midpoint of my training, I had picked up the habit of choosing more mainstream subfields and topics on my own. I focused on social psychology instead of gender or sexualities for my qualifying exam. My dissertation was primarily a medical sociology project, though it includes some attention to sexuality and intersectionality.

On the surface, the pressure to become a mainstream sociologist was a practical matter. I would, and did, get job offers as a quantitative medical sociologist who has published in mainstream journals. Maybe the interests I came to grad school with – wanting to study racism within queer communities using qualitative methods – would have led to a very different academic trajectory. But, the implicit message was that studying sexualities – or more specifically, studying queer people – was not important to sociology. To be successful, one does not become a sociologist of sexualities, and certainly not a sociologist of queer communities nor a queer sociologist. Rather, one becomes a medical sociologist, a criminologist, a cultural sociologist or some other reputable subfield, who happens to study LGBTQ people.

When I became a medical sociologist who happens to study queer people, and other oppressed groups, I stopped hearing that my research interests were “too narrow.” I stopped hearing, “you’ll never get a job with a dissertation on trans people.” Conforming paid off – at least professionally.

“Don’t Flaunt It”

ScholarThe second manifestation of conditional acceptance for queer scholars in sociology is parallel to the expression, “I don’t care if you’re queer as long as you don’t flaunt it.”  For lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, your sexual identity is not an issue so long as you do not make it an issue – at least in the eyes of our heterosexist colleagues. Besides advice on how to frame my work, I also occasionally received advice on how to present myself as a scholar.  For conference presentations, I was warned against “shy guy stuff.” Translation: “man up.” To be successful, a scholar must present herself in a masculinist way. From the awful stories that I heard from trans and gender non-conforming peers, I understood that to mean my ticket to success on the job market was wearing suits and speaking with unwavering authority and expertise. Due to my fear of professional harm, I wear suits in almost every academic setting, including the classroom.

In my pursuit to conform to the heterosexist and cissexist standards in sociology and academe in general, I have been rewarded. But, that has come at great personal costs. What began as a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder stemming from the intense, urgent demands of grad school morphed into anxiety about interacting with other people in general – even students. I find only slight comfort in my suits from the fear of being dismissed, disrespected, or even fired. I struggle to find a home within sociology. My work falls primarily in medical sociology, yet I remain unknown in that subfield of the ASA. I find a sense of community in the sexualities section, but my limited research feels insignificant to the study of sexuality. Finding the proper home for awards and sessions is a challenge each year, as well.

More generally, I feel my professional identity has almost completely dissociated from my sexual, gender, and racial identities, as well as my activism. Though I am undeniably out via my blogging and other public writing, my scholarship, and the picture of my partner on my office desk, my queer identity is disconnected from my professional presentation of self. In the classroom, I only explicitly out myself after students have completed course evaluations because I fear that I will be deemed biased or “too activist.” I suppose I am somewhat in the closet intellectually and pedagogically. I do not feel authentically queer as a scholar and teacher.

I probably should not be surprised by my experiences. I first read Patricia Hill Collins’s essay, “Learning from the Outsider Within,” in my first semester of graduate school. Through that 1986 piece, Collins warned me that scholars of oppressed communities face the pressure to “assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” in order to become sociological insiders. The outsider within status is one filled with tension between one’s experiences and worldview and the false ideology of objectivity in mainstream sociology. Collins noted that some sociological outsiders resolve this tension by leaving the discipline, while others suppress their difference to become sociological insiders. Apparently, I have pursued the latter path.

Some Advice For LGBTQ Sociologists (And Scholars in General)

I do not share these experiences to criticize my graduate program, or as an excuse to vent about that chapter of my life. I also refrain from casting blame, as I am partly responsible. Knowing the norms and values of academia, I have made various compromises in order to get ahead. Fortunately, there are improvements, albeit reflecting slow change. For example, just 3 years after the 2012 sexualities ASA pre-conference in Denver, CO, sexuality will be the 2015 theme for the main ASA meeting in Chicago. And, I do not want to characterize the academic career options for queer people as bleak, facing either conformity and selling out or perpetually being on the margins of sociology.

I do believe there is hope for an authentic, happy, and healthy career for queer sociologists, including those who study gender and sexualities. I suspect we must all make some sort of concessions in order to success in academia, though this burden falls more on marginalized scholars. It may be useful, then, to determine how far one is willing to concede. At what point does advancing in one’s career outweigh the costs to oneself, one’s identity and values, one’s family, and one’s community? I recommend reflecting on this at multiple times in one’s career, particularly with upcoming milestones, new jobs, and other transitions. Essentially, can you live with the tough decisions you must make?

  • If you are forced to make concessions, or even sell out in some way, then make sure there are other sources of community, authenticity, happiness, or validation in place in your life. Find or create a queer community, maybe specifically of other academics. Have one fun, critical, or super queer project for every few projects that are more mainstream; maybe use these projects as opportunities to collaborate with other queer scholars. If your research is pretty devoid of queer issues, find ways to cover them in your classes, or vice versa, or focus your service and advocacy on queer initiatives.
  • Look for queer role models among your professors or senior colleagues. Look outside of your own department or university if necessary. And, in turn, consider being a role model for your students and junior colleagues – that means being out if it is safe to do so. Incorporate sexualities and trans studies into your syllabi to demonstrate the relevance and importance of these subjects in sociology. At the start of the semester, ask students for their preferred name and pronoun, and mention yours.
  • Before enrolling into a program or accepting a job, do your homework. How safe will you be as an out LGBTQ person? In the campus and local newspaper, can you find evidence of anti-LGBTQ violence, discrimination, and prejudice? Are queer scholars, especially those who do queer research, supported and included? Email queer and queer-friendly students or faculty. I have heard some suggest being out on interviews and campus visits, which seems counterintuitive; but, if you face discomfort or hostility, you would know what to except upon going there.
  • Let’s be honest about what we are talking about here: figuring out how to survive as queer people within heterosexist and cissexist academic institutions. In order to be included, in order to create queer communities, in order to see our own lives reflected in scholarship and curriculum, we must fight. Like it or not, we must be activists to ensure our survival and inclusion within academia and other social institutions.
  • Let’s keep having these conversations. It is crucial that we know that we are not alone, and that we have a supportive community in sociology.

The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia.  I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!).  And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).

Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia.  But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia.  I am referring to those who willfully do not see them.  Let me give a few examples, big and small:

  • Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around.  Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much.  Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
  • Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market.  And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations.  Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
  • Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations.  “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?”  Both times, I had to look away and count to ten.  Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
  • Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work.  In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!).  I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department.  Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
  • Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it.  What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers.  Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued.  I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline.  For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school.  Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals.  But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
  • Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation].  Want the most career options?  Select a white man as your dissertation chair.  Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia?  Hmm, that probably is not a white man.  So, what do you value more — your success or your survival?  Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee.  Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc.  But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
  • In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged.  At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia!  Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”  “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  “How could she be racist?”  Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more!  Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability!  non-generalizable!  selection effect!  At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?

Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse.  We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces.  And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged.  Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.

This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer”  Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it.  At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness.  In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement.  We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.

On Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict, And Marginality

KasimKasim Ortiz will be a PhD student in sociology at Vanderbilt University beginning in Fall 2014. His research interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, medical sociology, religion, urban sociology, and demography.  Although, he contends that such labels of interests are too restrictive, as he is merely interested in life!  Below, Kasim reflects on the difficulty of finding a supportive mentor, and the broader, uglier reality that academic training often takes the form of hazing.  He offers practical tips for grad students to survive.

May I Work With You, Please?  Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict & Marginality

~ To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.
Bayard Rustin

The Journey Begins…

Markedly a characteristic of graduate school is identifying a mentor, often someone whose research speaks to you, from which you can grow as a scholar and gain insight on their lived experience in academia.  Also, this decision is often influenced by an ability to gain access to mentors’ professional network. Because it’s more important who you know rather than what you know, right? Racialized minority graduate students often find themselves gravitating towards faculty of color for a myriad of reasons. This mentor could very well be the only one in your department doing research that interests you.  All the blacks doing research on blacks, all the Latinos doing research on Latinos, all the gays doing gay research, all the financially stable doing poverty research. Please excuse my cynicism and generalization concerning academics and financial stability, not trying to give another blow to those in the academy that find themselves financially unstable.

Well guess what, I want to research them all because all of them are me (well, except financially stable… I’m still in the “trenches”).  I recognize my own financial capital in being an “intellect.”   I digress.  This story begins in an email: “May I work with you??  I really like your research and have ideas from which I believe can build upon your work.”  Little did I realize that such “community” seeking would be the beginning of a tormented pilgrimage to belong!

Culture Shock Sets In

A growing space has been supplied to the discussion of academic hazing, especially along tenure, gendered, and racial lines.  Graduate students are subject to certain expected experiences of hazing as “part of the process.”  Hazing it directly complements expected norms of academic life?  The backdrop for this “socialization” process often is remedied with our sole purpose being to obtain those “letters” behind our name because that will then afford us “freedom.”  But why?  But how?  But really?  But wait! “Freedom” at what cost?  Grandma interjects in the back of my mind: “Boy you know nothing in life is free.”

Wikipedia (yes I know it’s not an academically “reputable” source) defines hazing as the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse, or humiliation used as a way of irritating a person into a group and can be comprised of physical and psychological abuse. Most campuses have “anti-hazing” policies aimed primarily at undergraduate fraternalism, yet you’d be hard pressed to locate highly enforced policies on campuses that speak to academic hazing among or between faculty and/or faculty and graduate students.

Let Me Reintroduce Myself, My Body is…..

In an attempt to muddle the water, I’d like to discuss my lived experience not only as a racialized minority in the academy but also as an openly gay man with perceived “femininity,” who happens to be outspoken. Now you might ask yourself, why are those unamenable and innate qualities important? They are important because each quality represents a direct conflict against the sterilization (oh, I meant to say professional etiquette) within the ivory towers. The intersection of qualities has often resolved in a positionality reminiscent of Wocquant’s articulation of marginality. This has salience because as Wocquant notes (specific to urbanized areas), marginality is not experienced the same everywhere. Thus, it should be duly noted the situational context from which this piece arose.

I have attended a Division 1 SEC university in the southeastern United States for the past several years. I was mentally prepared for daily racial microaggressions such as when a white professor, studying disparities, proclaims in a public health course that “Tuskegee wasn’t about race? It was about class?!?” This “preparation” nonetheless minimized a constant burning at my soul physiologically and mentally.

However, I was not in any form or fashion prepared when a Black professor called my cell phone one weekend.  A response to my rightfully questioning authorship on a published manuscript.  The conversation proceed with, “Who the *uck do you think you are?  Don’t you know I could *uck your career up?”  The light bulb started warming, but wasn’t all the way on.  The light bulb finally came on when a Black administrator told me, “oh no we don’t want this information to get out because [professor so and so] brings <insert famous politician> yearly to this university.”  At that point it became clear, I was stuck in a crab barrel that promoted docility, unwarranted politics of respectability, and a selling of one’s soul.

My Brain is Larger Than Yours

The intellectual sizing up that accompanies life in the academy has often frustrated me beyond explanation.  This frustration is amplified when it comes from the hands of those in which my hands mirror.  It hasn’t become quite clear as to why such specific hazing occurs. However, why can’t I just be intelligent, passionate about learning, enjoy answering complex questions, read a lot and that be ok….isn’t this a place of “higher learning”?  I’ve often speculated that academic hazing stems from hazing experienced by so many Black undergraduates as they’ve sought brotherhood/sisterhood in fraternal organizations and have made it to glory as a professor.  A true crossing of the burning sands of a sort.

Yet this framing seems insufficient or at best a minimizing lens or an oversimplification. Could it be internalized racism which is rooted in historical experiences of enslavement and beyond chattel slavery? Could it be heterosexism and homophobia that deems my sexualized body dispensable among those that have similar skin tones because I am not quite a man but yet too much a feminine being? Is it because my outspoken nature is reminiscent of a “snap queen” or an “angry Black woman”? Might it be an attempt to cope with constant messages of inferiority where hazing one “less” privileged becomes necessary? Could it possibly be insecurity because of how an intersectional world experience manifests in my “thinking outside the box”? Or quite possible, academic hazing could just be internalized hatred for something someone represents for which others don’t want to be reminded of (the naivety of intellectual curiosity). I don’t have definitive conclusions to these puzzling questions, but I do have truth in being the recipient of their outcomes.  My questions aren’t a futile attempt to argue from the margins without recognizing the center.

So What Have I Learned? (Here’s the Takeaway):

  • Arm thy self! A desire to belong cannot, and should not, compromise your quality of life, emotional well-being, intellectual interests, passions beyond the sanitized walls of the academy, nor deny aspects that make oneself unique. This requires maturity in emotional intelligence, willingness to unveil masks, and ally building.
  • Protect thy self! Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy for an unwillingness to see truth. When situational contexts become clearly detrimental find meaningful ways to exit stage left. This could mean merely throwing the deuces; however, remember the last component of the previous tip. Without ally building it can be challenging to ‘exit stage left’ but with allies you can often find some peace. Also, naivety has to be thrown out the window. Just because someone talks like a duck, looks like a duck, doesn’t always mean they walk like a duck!
  • Love thy self! This cannot be iterated enough. Striking a balance in life while pursuing graduate studies can be difficult, yet you must force yourself. Find healthy (however you define) ways to disengage from academic life without jeopardizing your goals. Life isn’t always about doing; sometimes peace can be found in mindless nothingness.
  • Know thy self! When you’ve had enough, allow yourself to find the coping strategy that works for you. Often this is when you learn who is part of your “community” because those who are a true social support will be understanding. On “community”: immediately locating this is vital for success in academia. If you cannot find proximal “community” develop some form of “community” that provides you shade and cover from the day-to-day psychological distresses of the academy.
  • Challenge thy self! In the face of adversity do not, I repeat, do not run from it. Your feet will quickly become tired. Life in general can place you in uncomfortable situations and gaining consciousness of privilege may lead to heightened sensitivity. This is totally fine, just manage. If you feel there is a need for righteous anger, display it with your head held high, yet be open for change if necessary.

This post is an expression of me taking my own advice in challenging myself for which the following quote is truth of a new awakening.

“The Black [insert Latino] homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The “chosen‟ history. But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home.”
Essex Hemphill, “Loyalty” (1992)

 

Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia By Victor Ray

victor rayVictor Ray is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Duke University. He will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall. His research is on organizational responses to racial and gender discrimination. You can follow Victor on Twitter at @victorerikray

Below, Victor reflects on his frustration with his department’s award-winning level of diversity, at least on paper, that contradicts the otherwise exclusive department climate, norms, and practices.

My department just won the inaugural Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence, an award that is meant to reward the department for “extraordinary achievements” in promoting diversity in its graduate student body.  I was surprised by the news, as my experiences as a student of color in this department have been less than inclusive and other than excellent. Although students of color are indeed admitted to the graduate program, and even make it through to the PhD, they may still be psychologically scarred in the process. In fact, graduate students in nominally diverse departments can experience a backlash against diversity, as professors and students may be bothered by rising numbers of minorities. We are, after all, taking “their” resources.

I thought that the awarding of this “honor” would be a good time to write about the contradictions between symbolic inclusion and forms of de facto exclusion.  Awards like these only serve to reward organizations for their nominal commitment to a vague conception of diversity, without actually encouraging any improvement in the institutional treatment of people of color.

Although students of color were surprised just to hear the news of the award, the process got even more farcical when my department put up an announcement on its website celebrating the award.  The photo next to the announcement is a generic stock photo of “diverse business people” that turns up on the first page of a Google search for “diversity.” This photo was used because the classes are so overwhelmingly white that they couldn’t use a photo of an actual classroom to show racial diversity.  Of course, the response to this was typical of the many schools that suffer from this dilemma: they asked the folks of color to provide a photo or congregate for a photo-shoot.  We refused, deciding collectively that the stock photo is a better representation of the empty type of diversity these awards celebrate.

Diversity Matters

I want to emphasize that the department itself has done little to create or support a diverse environment.  Organizations don’t make themselves more diverse out of benevolence—they are pushed.  Students of color and white allies within the department have fought for years to get more classes on race and ethnicity and faculty hires of color (with little success).  We’ve written letters, spoken with deans and department chairs, and served on hiring committees.  There is considerable cost to this type of organizing, in time not spent on schoolwork, in the psychological tax of tokenism, and in risking the label of racial militancy, all of which affect subsequent employment opportunities.  These requests for substantive changes have largely been met with the typical excuses that universities make—pipeline issues, a lack of “qualified” scholars of color (whereas white mediocrity goes unremarked upon), budget shortfalls, etc.

As a stopgap means of providing more support for race scholarship, students of color also organized a race workshop, providing a space for students, postdocs, and professors from across the campus and from other institutions.  The majority of white faculty in my department rarely attends this workshop—but this award gives them credit that work.  Further, faculty members get angry that students have the audacity to organize.  Essentially, for pointing out that there is a problem with racial inequality, you become the problem.  You have, after all, made (white) power uncomfortable.  The racial etiquette of our “colorblind” era means you’re rude for talking about such things.

While the award was supposed to take curriculum into account, this is also an area that is significantly lacking.  The normative environment of graduate school is white and male.  White men often teach the core courses in sociology programs (Theory, Stats, Methods).  Their job is to socialize you into “the center” of the discipline; a center that historically and presently contains few (fully acknowledged) people of color.  These men have variable levels of hostility towards race work: for instance, I was told in my theory class that if we wanted to learn about racial theory, we should go study with the department’s one black male professor.  The simple fact that they are often the gatekeepers of the discipline sends a symbolic message.   The problem with this sort of diversity is we are only accepted on their terms.

Beyond the symbolic messages of these gatekeepers and the curriculum they prioritize, interactions with white professors hostile to race scholarship can silence students.1  For instance, on the first day of a seminar, there was an intense discussion on the “culture of poverty” thesis and Black families.  The professor and I were on opposite sides of this debate. I left the class feeling exhilarated—we had had an excellent civil exchange (or so I thought), with both of us defending our positions with citations.  An hour after the class, I got an email from the prof asking me to come to his office.  Upon arrival, he discussed our debate through a host of racist tropes, telling me I was hostile, angry, threatening, and subjective in evaluating evidence.  He told me I needed to moderate my tone. (He, of course, had only been objective and dispassionate while using the same tone in the discussion.) He had all the power in the situation, and I was effectively silenced.  Of course, harassment proceedings exist to allegedly remedy this type of behavior, but research shows reporting superiors can end careers.  The diversity we add to the department is supposed to be seen, not heard.

As a very light-skinned black man, I realize that I do not experience the overt racism of, say, being racially profiled by campus police or asked regularly if I am a student, experiences that effect darker-skinned men and women all too often. That being said, contrary to some rather un-reflexive commentary on the experiences of light-skinned people of color elsewhere, being light doesn’t mean you don’t experience racism.  Over the past seven years, professors have told me that I only received competitive grants and fellowships because of affirmative action; that my Afro didn’t look scholarly; that the graduate student applicant pool didn’t include any qualified blacks; and that “critical” race work wasn’t objective.2  These types of not-so-subtle micro-aggressions do not harm a department’s numbers on recruitment and only harm retention rates if they become so unbearable that students drop out.

Undoubtedly, my department has a good record on admitting racial minorities comparative to similarly ranked programs.  And while the numbers aren’t necessarily lying, by equating population with power, they are obscuring the daily lives of graduate students of color in the program.  If this award were granted solely on the racial climate, we wouldn’t deserve it.  Finally, I fear awards like this end up justifying inaction on a department’s problems.  People can point to the award as recognition for a job well done, and oppose movement towards racial equity.  Maybe giving out these awards, without specific benchmarks for departments to achieve, is not such a good idea.

__________

Notes:

1 Although I can’t speak for the other students of color in the department, many of them have spoken to me privately about similar micro and macro aggressions.  And some have even left graduate school because of what they considered a climate of racial animus.

2 I personally don’t think of myself as all that critical or militant, not because my scholarship supports the status quo, but because I don’t think there is anything all that critical about saying, for instance, that the United States is founded and continues to thrive on racism.  This is simply true.

My Survival Vs. My Job

Tenure

One Friday, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up tired and a bit grouchy.  I cannot explain how, but I had a feeling the day was destined to be rough.  Now teaching everyday except for Friday — three classes, including two on Tuesdays and Thursdays — I am typically extremely exhausted by Friday.  But, I have yet to reach a week’s end where I could take Friday off from work, or even do light, mindless work.  With a new course prep, if I do not get a decent amount of work done on Friday, I am setting the stage for a panic-filled Monday followed by more days of stress, and another exhausted Friday.  Did I mention this semester is kicking my ass challenging?

But, I digress.  I logged into Facebook one last time before leaving for work finally.  There I saw a picture of a Black History Month themed display at my university’s dining hall:

Dining Hall Display

The cotton and bale of hay…  What about this display is a celebration of Black history?  What about this features the accomplishments of Black Americans, or aspects of Black culture?  What the fuck about this is a celebratory moment for Black people in the US?  Yes, cotton — makes me think of the most oppressive and violent period in American history for Black people: slavery.

I saw that a colleague had posted the picture, taken from a student who posted it on Twitter earlier in the week.  But, I decided to ignore it.  I had not seen it for myself nor was I willing to make a special trip to see it.  And, let’s be honest, I immediately felt this was not a matter I could fight as a pre-tenure professor.  But, the major reason was I simply did not have the emotional and spiritual capacity because I was already bogged down fighting other demons.  I had to muster up enough energy just to go to work.

Choosing Your Battles; Or, Racial Battle Fatigue

As the day went on, the bizarrely racist dining hall display increasingly bothered me, like a slow-release pill.  I braved a smile as I chit-chatted with my colleagues about usual department matters.  I spoke with one about being productive and politically “safe” as I progress toward tenure.  Something about that colleague’s advice — that everyone’s tenure decision is political and uncertain, so you really cannot help but to be stressed for seven years — yanked the last shred of hope I had for the day.  I almost walked away upon hearing it, but forced myself to carry out the conversation.  When I returned to my office, it took every ounce of my energy to stay seated and keep working rather than collapsing into a ball on the floor to cry.  I should have taken Tyra Banks’s advice: just let the cry out and get back to work.

But, what was there to cry about?  Oh, that I cannot shake the feeling that I am slowly sabotaging my own career with every provocative tweet and blog post.  That, maybe even at the end of this first year, I will receive a letter instructing me to clear out my office and seek new employment.  For all of the positive feedback I have received on my blogging, I still hear a voice that says something bad will happen if I insist on publicly, vocally criticizing academia.  Another way to put it is that I do not have a clear, external gauge for my standing at the university, and I will have to wait until my third year review to find one, though annual reviews may help, too.

By late afternoon, I returned to the dining hall display of nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.”  Still, I did not feel comfortable voicing my concern without having seen it, and did not want to make the trip to see it.  So, I asked my tenured colleague to voice a complaint, and made clear my hesitation as a tenure-track faculty member and, frankly, that I already felt depleted from other battles.  Fortunately, a number of people had already spoken up and the display was removed.

My Survival Or My Survival?  (But, not both…)

This incident highlighted a tension that I had not named for myself until now.  On the one hand, I could speak up, emphasize the hostility to Black students, staff, faculty, and visitors that is conveyed by a display reminiscent of enslavement.  That is, I could take an action to fight for the survival of my racial community.  On the other hand, I could keep my mouth shut and “play it safe” as a junior professor, opting to avoid making enemies across campus.  That is, I could chose inaction for the sake of keeping my job — my survival as an individual.  Choosing to speak up (anti-racism) or shut up (job security) were my two opposing options.  Do I focus on my survival (as a Black person) or my survival (as a professor)?

And, there it is.  Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academia.  Everyday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival.  Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus.  By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars.  Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus.  Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival.  And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.

Unfortunately, my actions have consequences for my partner and family, as well.  That means there is an additional layer — feeling selfish or reckless — each time I put my job on the line for the good of my communities.  I would say once per month, I ask my partner, in essence, for permission to be myself.  In that I fear professional consequences for blogging about academia, as well as other forms of advocacy on and off campus, I convey to him my worry that my actions could ultimately hurt him, as well.  If I were fired before even going up for tenure for seen and unseen political reasons, we would both suffer (e.g., loss of income and benefits).

Every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind to eliminate the blog and start all over as a “safe,” silent, apolitical tenure-track professor.  To just teach my classes and churn out publications.  And, wait until tenure is awarded to become vocal and critical and involved in social justice work.  Yes, then I would be safe.  Right?  Because all scholars have a fair chance at tenure, right?

I would not be safe.  Every tenure decision is political.  So, I have two choices: play it as safe as possible, all at the expense of fighting for my communities’ survival; or, speak up and out against injustice, potentially being labeled radical, “activist,” uppity, militant, or even a liability.  I am doing my damnedest to balance the two paths.

“Maybe You’re Overreacting…?” — On Emotional Control

Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought.  Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations.  Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world.  (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”)  However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work.  For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding.  And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).

It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are regulated and used that reflect inequality.  I became interested in the sociology of emotions through my introduction to Arlie Hochschild‘s book, The Managed Heart – a study of the emotional labor of (women) flight attendants and the wear it has on their health and well-being.  In particular, when forcing a positive, nurturing emotion for so long, the flight attendants in her study noted feeling disconnected from their authentic emotions.  I can also relate to the idea of emotion work as a means of navigating oppression (i.e., avoiding discrimination and violence) in Doug Schrock‘s research on transwomen.

Controlling Emotions

I am also interested in, and particularly sensitive to, the seemingly innocent ways in which we attempt to control others’ emotions.  “Boys don’t cry.”  “Stop your whining.”  “Must be PMS.  Amiright?!”  “Calm down.”  “He’s an angry Black man.”  Some of these requests reflect good intentions.  Some are simply demands to stop emoting in a certain way.  Whatever the intention, these are attempts to control another person.  But, I worry that the burden of emotional control — or being emotionally controlled, I should say — falls too often on marginalized people.  In fact, certain emotions are seen as particularly threatening or inappropriate because of one’s social location.

It almost seems “angry Black” is redundant based on the way that Black people are criticized for presumably publicly expressing anger — anger that would be seen as understandable in a white person.  It also seems that anger is read no matter one’s actual internal emotional state and one’s behavior or outward expression of emotion.  So, to avoid the penalties of being read as angry and Black, some have to work even harder to seem deferential friendly.

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I would argue that at the heart of this desire to control marginalized individuals’ emotions is an unwillingness to acknowledge and appreciate their experiences.  The best example of this is the seemingly concerned and innocent question, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  This question suggests that your way of responding to an event or condition exceeds what is seen as appropriate.  The flaw, however, is typically in the inquirer’s underestimation of how intense the situation is — and how frequently it occurs.

Let me give a specific example.  Well, none come to mind because it has happened repeatedly in my life.  In relaying that I feel upset after I have heard something so offensive, or even been victimized by discrimination, to a trusted friend or colleague, I have been asked, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  Now that I reflect on the question, it is unclear whether the inquirer is suggesting my perception of the event is inaccurate or my emotional response is inappropriate — it is probably both.  The question sets me off because I do not feel the inquirer believes my perception of my own experiences, and has attempted to control my emotional responses to them.

It is insult to injury.

The most frustrating piece is that the question of overreacting presumes that the reaction is to an isolated incident.  “So, he accidentally alluded that whites are American and people of color are not.  I am sure he…” blah blah blah, benefit of the doubt.  Because, you know, we are uncomfortable assuming someone is a bigot or fails to acknowledge their privilege, even when their behavior says otherwise.  In reality for the oppressed person, these seemingly minor expressions of prejudice or discriminatory acts open up the wound from a lifetime of exposure to this kind of crap.  It is not just that one racist asshole — it is yet another reminder that I will forever encounter racist assholes, who are then given the benefit of the doubt, while I am told an appropriate way to emote (if I am allowed to at all).

As these events add up, and the efforts to control your response add up, the larger picture becomes one of an oppressed life with nothing less than a smile on your face.  You do not have the right to be upset about your oppressed status.  If you are angry that you are oppressed, and that anger is understood by the oppressor, that oppression is no longer justifiable.  We can longer reference happy Black slaves, and then miserable freed Blacks.  We would not be able to justify the racism-motivated opposition President Obama has faced since the beginning of his presidency if we understood and appreciated his anger; so, we must undercut him by alluding to angry Black men.

Concluding Thoughts

Do me a favor.  Strike “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” from your vocabulary.  Never string those words together when someone has confided in you about their experiences — even beyond the examples above related to discrimination and prejudice.  Particularly for marginalized people, we have already replayed the event in our heads a few times before naming it as unfair, discrimination, or at least worth of an upset response.  We already have weighed the possibility of being dismissed or told that we are overreacting or simply hypersensitive before telling another soul.

Try, instead, telling someone you believe them (if you do).  And, even if you do not, affirm their right to emote however feels right to their experiences.  If you cannot muster that, just listen.  Be just that one person who does not demand that an upset person justify to you that they experienced what they experienced and are properly responding to those experiences.

Professors Feel Pain, Too

Last month, I attended a teaching workshop on navigating difficult classroom discussions, with a focus on racist microaggressions that may occur during class.  This was a great workshop; it reignited my passion for teaching by reminding me why I became an educator in the first place.  Despite lawsuits against professors who dare to talk about structural racism and attempted forced retirements against those who talk about sex work, I stand firmly by the position that a professor’s job is to talk about uncomfortable, controversial subjects.  A class is incomplete if its students have not been pushed outside of their comfort zones and/or had their initial ways of thinking challenged.

The workshop left only one issue unaddressed that I sorely wanted to discuss: acknowledging and navigating the instructor’s pain.  This is not really a complaint.  Recognizing and addressing racist and other microaggressions in one’s classroom deserves more than the three hours we devoted to it that morning.  So, too, in my opinion, does recognizing and addressing what instructor’s experience and bring to the classroom.  As I noted even in my introduction at the start of the workshop, I want to know how I can stop shutting down when something offensive is said in the classroom.  Beyond that, I struggle with carrying my own pain from experiencing the very things I bring up in class.

Let me give two examples of what I mean:

  • About half way through my research methods course last semester, a white student dismissed the conclusions drawn from a experiments that suggested the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination — even among young children.  I acknowledge that I chose experiments that were not without their limitations, but had the benefit of a video about them.  But, I could tell that underlying this student’s comment was not methodological concerns; rather, he seemed set in believing these experiments could not possibly demonstrate the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination.  I was neither emotionally nor pedagogically prepared to have the “does racism exist?” conversation, so I pointed out the inaccuracies in his own comment, and acknowledged the limitations of the studies, and moved on.  It was a course on methods, not racism, after all; but, how I could have better handled this kind of concern, or even challenge, lingers in my mind still.
  • On the very day I taught on homophobia in my gender and sexualities course last semester, a construction crew member left a religious pamphlet in my apartment.  I suspect this was upon seeing pictures of my partner and me while they entered to install a new door.  Prejudice or shoddy work, they also threw our doormats about and left a lot of sawdust on the carpet and furniture.  I went to class that day feeling violated.  A stranger, whose identity, appearance, and politics were unknown to me, entered my home and left a message to me about their religious beliefs.  This would have been a wonderful experience to bring up in that evening’s class.  But, I knew not to for fear that I might become upset or even start crying.  I had not yet processed the experience and, frankly, patched up the wound it reopened.

My pedagogical approach embraces one’s personal experiences directly, rather than treating them as suspect (i.e., a threat to objectivity) or irrelevant.  I ask students to drawn on their own lives to support comments made in class; also, my assignments require students to connect course material to their personal experiences.  I figure that students will not retain material as well if you ask them to prioritize it over all of their year’s of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions; at best, they may set course material beside this preexisting mental content and, sometimes, easily slip back into old ways of thinking.  Also, I aim to contribute to my students’ consciousness-raising by asking them to reexamine their own lives and past experiences through the critical lenses taught in my courses.  So, I willingly work at breaking the barrier between intellectual and personal imposed by much of academia, and intentionally bring up controversial and difficult subjects during class.

I certainly agree with other instructors’ sentiment that I am not a counselor.  I now make clear that the classroom should be treated as a safe, nonjudgmental place, but it is not designed as a group therapy session.  I contribute to maintaining this kind of space by (re)directing the conversation back to course material, and avoiding therapy-style questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “and, then what did you say to him?”  My approach is a work in progress, and necessarily shifts or expands each time I teach a new course.  But, I generally feel comfortable in asking my students to reflect on their lives, even pain related to the issues we discuss.

Professor’s Feel Pain, Too

But, what about my experiences and pain?  I certainly do not make the class about me.  (Hello, still struggling with self-doubt and better self-promotion here!)   Yet, I do make a point to divulge some to reciprocate in asking my students to open up to me (and the entire class, if they wish).  At a minimum, I save the last day for lingering questions students have for me (asked anonymously), which usually covers “what’s your race?”, “what’s your sexual orientation?”, “where did you go to graduate school/college?”, “why did you become a sociologist?”  Funny, though, I was surprised to find that I received only 2 or 3 questions in my research methods course — the one where I had already been the least open as a human; but, everyone asks a question in my gender and sexualities courses.  After gauging the class in general, and the conversation that day, I sometimes interject with a personal thought or experience if it will offer a different perspective than what was already offered.

I have noticed, though, that my willingness to share surrounds “safe” experiences and thoughts.  That is, they are not too controversial, thus avoiding radically changing how my students’ views of me thus far.  But, I also mean that I have efficiently processed it.  I either no longer experience pain in the case of negative occurrences or am sufficiently suppressing how I feel just enough to share with a group of semi-strangers.  But, I do not simply have a painful past.  As a fat Black queer man, there is a very good chance I experienced something related to weight, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. that day.

Besides carrying the pain, especially for experiencing discrimination or microaggressions, it is hard to completely throw out the myth of objectivity in the classroom.  Implicitly, I cave to the false security of being objective by withholding my own experiences and thoughts from classroom discussion.  When my students talked about their experiences with homophobia — as targets or witnesses — I refrained from saying, “hell, I just experienced homophobia right before class!” because the conversation was not supposed to be about me.  This is not necessary, and is unfair to my students who decide to share.  But, it is hard to quickly break from the way that most of us are taught (if at all) to teach.

“Objectivity,” Or Suppressing Pain

The myth of objectivity in teaching is also unfair to me because it also plays out as suppression — a form of emotional labor.  Being “objective” about racism, for example, is not simply keeping my thoughts to myself to, instead, prioritize my students’ thoughts; it is having to keep a lid on years’ worth of my own pain and anger.  It is trying to be respectful and remained engaged as I hear white students underestimate the pervasiveness of racism while my mind starts to drift to the “nigger joke” that ruined my Christmas night.

So, in recognizing what this is — that I carry pain — it is now my job to figure out what to do with it.  Bringing it to class puts me at risk for having this pain shutting me down or constraining my ability to effectively run classroom discussion.  So long as I willingly teach on subjects like racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., I must work at emotionally and pedagogically preparing to talk about things that will always hit close to home.  Sadly, I need to prepare, albeit it to a lesser extent, even when I teach “safe” and “generic” topics because it would be foolish to expect the classroom to be devoid of prejudice and discrimination.

But, this points to one manifestation of inequality in academia that I will forever resent: that marginalized scholars are tasked with this kind of emotional labor before (and likely after) class, on top of additional concerns to navigating during class.  This additional burden of labor related to teaching is exacerbated because our privileged colleagues are less likely to pursue these subjects in class anyhow.  And, worse, they are (at times) one source of the pain we carry around with us.